It was a road rage incident in real life that inspired showrunner Lee Sung Jin to write the dark comedy, Beef. As he was driving on the 10 Freeway in Los Angeles, Lee was cut off by a white SUV — very similar to the car that Ali Wong’s character drives in the series.
“It was a typical road rage thing,” Lee said during the Beef press conference last week. “The light turned green and I didn’t go fast enough. [They] honked at me and said a bunch of things and raced off. For some reason that day, I was like ‘I’ll follow you”, but I didn’t have a plan in my mind. There is something there about people who are very stuck in their subjective views of reality, and they’re projecting assumptions onto the other person. That was the kernel of the idea.”
Wong recalled a road rage incident in her teens when a drunk driver began following her and shouting expletives towards her. She was just focused on getting away from the guy. Though that moment stuck with her, she did not use that to channel her character.
“I don’t know if I’m a big channeler,” Wong laughed. “I just read the words and memorize it.”
In Beef, set to release this week on Netflix, Amy (Wong) and Danny (Steven Yeun) are two strangers whose lives converge during a road rage incident. Danny is a failing contractor with a lot of personal issues, while Amy seems to have it all — a successful business, a fancy home, and a beautiful family, she is struggling like the rest of us. Their encounter leaves behind a trail of tears for the people in their lives.
Known for his recent serious roles like Minari and Burning, Yeun says the series being a dark comedy didn’t feel any different because the story still centered around Danny’s trauma. There are some funny moments, but it comes from a serious and tragic place.
“To play the comedy of Danny is to lean into the unfortunate trauma of his life,” said Yeun. “It felt like being in and out at the same time. That’s where the shame part came in, where I [am] watching Danny go through this thing [and I think] how do I not bail on him. I’m just judging him and cringing and not trying to make him make sense, but then you gotta make it make sense. That was a challenge.”
Wong, on the other hand, is enjoying the dark thriller aspects of the series, which is very different from her comedy sets and her 2019 romantic comedy Always Be My Maybe. Wong got to show a little bit of her edgy side.
“I just haven’t done anything like that before,” Wong revealed. “Just as the show has progressed, it’s so suspenseful. I’m reading every page right away with so much anticipation. I never knew it was gonna happen. It surprised me.”
What surprised her even more was a scene between her and Yeun in the forest in the middle of the night. Yeun, who has done many action sequences in The Walking Dead, was used to outdoor scenes in the forest — whereas Wong described herself as Shelley Long’s opulent character in Troop Beverly Hills.
“I was excited about this whole thriller element, but then when you’re actually doing it, it’s scary,” Wong shared. “It was fun, but what was challenging was hiding how terrified and uncomfortable that was.”
Lee credits his writers room for the balance between the comedic and serious moments, because there are moments where it gets pretty disturbing. He wanted to be sure there was a balance between the scenes that felt organic. Fortunately, with Wong and Yeun, they made it work.
“We spent an inordinate amount of time just making sure that the chord progressions of the season felt right,” said Lee. “That’s probably what I spend the most amount of time on — making sure the beats feel good.”
As for the cultural aspects of the series, Korean-born, American-raised Lee says everything in there just made sense for the story. Like many Korean Americans, they attend church and some even participate in youth groups. “You just try to add textures and specificities that feel true to life and true to people, then all those themes naturally bubble up, but it’s definitely not top down where I want to tackle identity or anything like that. It’s just trying to write the characters that feel real.”
Beef premieres on April 6 on Netflix.